Three Rs for a new generation
Mountaineer, environmentalist, author, filmmaker, businessman… Rick Ridgeway has many strings to his bow. Part of the first US team to summit K2 and an explorer who has sought out experiences all over the world, Ridgeway has been living the adventurer’s dream for decades. National Geographic magazine even honoured him with its Lifetime Achievement in Adventure award.
As he approaches his 67th birthday in August, Ridgeway’s drive and energy are undimmed, but his focus is now squarely on making a difference for the planet – specifically through the way consumerism impacts the world’s resources. It seems counterintuitive for someone involved in the clothing business.
Californian-born Ridgeway personifies global outdoor clothing company Patagonia’s ethos. As vice president of Public Engagement he’s been behind some of the company’s more inventive campaigns.
Patagonia has become the master of ‘non marketing’. Successive campaigns have encouraged the company’s intensely loyal customers to think twice before purchasing new product. The upshot? Patagonia is thriving, yet doing everything it can to reduce its footprint through a range of innovative activities – driving technological improvement in the clothing industry and setting a new standard for product stewardship.
One such initiative, launched in Australia in March, is the Worn Wear campaign. “We launched this in the US three years ago as an extension of our business model, which was to make the best, most durable and long-lasting products we can,” Ridgeway says.
“At the same time we needed to ensure our products were made with no unnecessary harm to the environment – it was part and parcel of our partnership with our customers who were interested in living responsibly.”
Worn Wear is designed to offer customers greater ‘end-of-life’ options. Rather than throw out clothing, Patagonia is actively encouraging the three Rs – repair, recycle, resell. “We started on this track in the 70s – we had repair stations in our stores, we developed videos to assist people in doing their own repairs. We showed customers how they could use their items for as long as possible, in an act of environmental responsibility.
“Look at the footprint of a jacket over its lifetime. The footprint reduces when the jacket is used for five, 10, 15 or even more than 20 years. We didn’t want jackets to be worn out after a year and end up in landfill.”
As part of, Black Friday, the US’s annual shopping frenzy on the day after Thanksgiving, Ridgeway devised a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, encouraging people not to buy Patagonia’s best-selling jacket. “We wanted customers to consider how they could get by with as few jackets as possible, when considering their personal footprint on the planet.
“The headline said ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ because we wanted to shock people. We wanted them to know the footprint behind producing each one – the hundreds of litres of water, the 20 pounds (nine kilograms) of greenhouse gas emissions.”
The campaign was driven from within. “We didn’t implement Worn Wear because our customers were asking for it. Henry Ford’s famous quote said that if he listened to his customers he’d end up providing a faster horse. This is part of a global commitment to responsibility; the response from our customers in the US was robust and we anticipate that Australia will be the same.”
““Look at the footprint of a jacket over its lifetime. The footprint reduces when the jacket is used for five, 10, 15 or even more than 20 years. We didn’t want jackets to be worn out after a year and end up in landfill.” – Rick Ridgeway
Ridgeway says every company should have its eye on the Millennial generation. “To understand what’s important to them – social justice, environmental protection – is to understand the strength of your business model. There’s a reaction against unfettered consumption and this generation is looking to support companies that get that.”
There are some startling figures. Ridgeway says as the world’s population grows and affluence continues at is current rate, by 2050 the world will be consuming up to seven times the resources that it can replenish on a natural basis. “You don’t need an MBA to know the result of that is bankruptcy; the Millennials know they’re inheriting that mess from us.”
Patagonia’s mission is to make the best product it can without unnecessary harm to the planet. “The creation of all consumer goods has an impact on the planet. We’re starting to get our heads around some emerging trends and technologies that are very exciting,” says Ridgeway, adding that Patagonia is working with the agricultural sector to maximise soil health, carbon sequestration, water reduction and sustainability – particularly in farming organic cotton. The company is mapping its entire supply chain.
“One thing we’re very proud of is the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which we co-founded with Walmart in 2010. It’s a mission of creating standardised tools to measure the impact of a clothing business across the full value chain – from materials through to end-of-life. We look at the footprint of retail stores and give designers tools to help create products from materials that result in no unnecessary harm.
“Since the launch, we’ve grown the coalition to represent 40 percent of the apparel industry worldwide. With that level of industry involvement, we are now the de facto standard,” says Ridgeway.
“I think given our efforts in developing these standardised measurements, we’re ahead of the curve, but we’re far from being in a leading position in the circular economy. The auto industry and electronics are showing good leadership there.
“Government is mandating end-of-life strategies, but apparel has a long way to go. Most people don’t think about what they can do with their clothing.”
The ‘real’ Indiana Jones?
When Rolling Stone magazine profiled Ridgeway in the 1980s, during a period when he was focused on mountaineering adventures all over the world, he was described as the ‘real’ Indiana Jones.
“I was at a conference the year before last and just happened to be talking to Harrison Ford, who I know a bit. A mutual friend came up and made a comment about Indiana Jones; I don’t know if Harrison was amused by the reference or not.
“I’ve learned so much from life as an adventure and climber. It’s deeply informed me both as a businessperson and a human being. I wouldn’t be where I was today without those experiences.”